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US speedskater Ohno locks horns with Korea

The 1,000-meter race this Saturday night promises to have all the highs and lows of an epic blood rivalry.

Apolo Anton Ohno of the U.S. chases a South Korean skater during the men's 5,000-meter relay short track speedskating semi-finals at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Feb. 17, 2010. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

VANCOUVER, Canada — Perhaps it’s a stretch to call it a blood feud. Then again, maybe not. The emotions engendered by the competition between American short track speedskating star Apolo Anton Ohno and the powerful Korean team transcend anything connoted by rivalry or even unfriendly rivalry.

Ohno has now gone head-to-head with three generation’s of Korea’s best at three different Olympics, with the next encounter — at 1,000 meters — scheduled for Saturday night. And if history is any guide, the race will be nothing less than a no-holds-barred scrum with high potential for major mayhem.

When the 19-year-old Ohno arrived at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, it didn’t take long to recognize that this hipster was a different kind of Olympic athlete. And with his soul patch, his diamond earring and his long, wavy hair wrapped in a colorful bandana, he was exactly the kind that appealed to young fans who were beginning to find the Olympics a bit stale.

Raised by his Japanese father, a hair stylist, in the Seattle area (his mother had left when he was just 1 year old), Ohno channeled his huge energies and remarkable physical gifts into sports. He made a successful crossover from inline skating to short track and was an immediate sensation, invited as a 13-year-old to train at the U.S. Olympic Center in Lake Placid.

But he wasn’t yet enamored of the kind of discipline that elite sports demanded. When his father dropped him at the airport for his trek east, he went on the lam for a week until his father tracked him down and personally put him on a plane. He had a few more lapses during his training regimen, though his nights of sneaking out to Pizza Hut ended after teammates nicknamed him “Chunky.” And he climbed quickly up the ranks of the sport. In the season before the Salt Lake Games, he won the World Cup overall title as well as the title at all three distances (500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters).

He was a confident young man — some would say cocky — when he made his first Olympic team. But he was also affable, spoke easily and with refreshing candor, and was popular with his teammates and, reportedly, even some opponents. How the Koreans may have felt about him before the Olympic 1,500-meter race is lost to posterity. How they felt about him afterward has been a burning issue ever since.

In the finals, Ohno was tucked right behind Korea’s Kim Dong-sung when, on the final turn, he tried to pass him on the inside. Kim fended off his pass and crossed the finish line the apparent winner. He was skating his victory lap and waving his country’s flag when — to the astonishment of the Koreans (and many others) — Kim was disqualified for obstruction and Ohno was awarded his first gold medal.

Korean fans raged against American injustice and no doubt their bruised feelings were exacerbated by Ohno’s Japanese ancestry. Ohno would add a silver medal at 1,000 meters, literally crawling across the finish line after he and a Korean skater wiped out in a collision caused by a Chinese skater.

But in the eyes of Korean fans, it was one more ugly mess involving the nettlesome American. The anger was so intense and heartfelt in that it even showed up on the soccer field four months later when Korea hosted the World Cup. After a Korean player scored the tying goal against the U.S. team, he mocked the Americans by mimicking a speedskater. (The American players didn’t have a clue what it was all about, but folks in the pressbox immediately recognized the insult aimed at Ohno.)